The city wants your insights – they are going to go electronic and online to get them and spend $100,000 to make this happen.

October 26, 2013

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON.  Governing is all about information.  Power is also all about information.

How does one get that information?  And just what is the information?

Those were questions and concerns that got raised at a meeting last Thursday at the Performing Arts Centre where Burlingtonians got to listen to one of the greatest public polling practitioners this country has ever had.  Angus Reid was in town to talk about Insight Burlington

Surrey, BC resident responding to an online poll. Burlington will be using the same service to learn what 5,000 Burlingtonians think about issues the city faces.

Mayor Goldring explained Insight Burlington as the city’s new online public consultation and citizen engagement community.  It is an online consultation community where participants will weigh in on important city issues by participating in online surveys and discussions via their smart phones, computers and tablets.  Insight Burlington is powered by Vision Critical’s online community platform, connecting busy people with their city via ongoing consultations and engagement, on their time and on their terms. It is expected to launch early next year.

This “engagement community” will be made up of a panel of 5,000 people – perhaps more.  If you want to be on the panel use the link at the bottom of the page to  add your name to the list – when the panel is being put together you will be advised and given a chance to be part of the process.

Well – just what is that process – how will it work and who controls the process.  While Burlingtonians are decent,  polite people they ask questions and want to be sure their interests are being put first.

The city wants to engage its citizens and they know that there has to be something better than the current council delegation process.  Angus Reid told the audience what they already knew:  “We’re increasingly turning to digital and mobile technology, it’s time for public institutions and local governments to engage people where they are spending time: online.

The Mayor gets emails constantly and told of an occasion when he was in bed, reading a book on his e reader when a “tweet” suddenly showed up on the screen.  He had forgotten to turn that feature off.

If 5,000 Burlingtonians had been asked what they wanted the city to do with the Water Street property they recently agreed to sell to private interests – would we have seen a different decision? Is electronic opinion gathering going to make a difference to the way city council decides?

We live in a society where everything is “on” all the time.  People want information – now.  The city would like to know what people think – now, while a decision is being made.

So Burlington is buying into a service that lets the city create a panel of 5,000 people who will get messages asking them what they think about specific issues.  People will be able to respond instantly through their cell phone, their tablet, their lap top or their computer at home.

The city will tabulate the results instantly and know what the prevailing views of these 5000 people are on the questions being asked.

Who is going to choose those 5000 people several in the audience wanted to know.  They won’t be chosen explained Angus Reid – they will self-select.  If you want to be on the panel then you put yourself on the panel.  What if some organization has all its members rush to be on the panel and thereby dominate the responses?

The technology built into the system will catch things like this the audience was told.  So if there I technology involved then someone does have control?

Gets complex and at some point one has to trust the people running the operation.

OK – who will be running the operation at city hall?  Well it won’t be the council members.  OK – who will be running the operation at city hall?  Well it won’t be the council members.  The Insight Burlington process will be run out of the office of the city manager.  Good – we happen to have a first-rate city manager – but he will retire at some point – if we don’t burn him out before he retires.

The city has an Engagement Charter and some thought this information gathering service could be tied into that.  Good idea – one that needs some additional thinking.

Mayor Goldring explained some of the ways the Insight Burlington service would work.  People just don’t have the time to get out to meetings where they listen to a presentation and then stand in line to get to a microphone to make a comment.  We see this all the time with development applications.

Insight Burlington could be used to put up visuals that show what is proposed as a particular development application.  The facts would be laid out and people would get a chance to answer questions. 

The city holds budget review meetings that draw 50 people sometimes – seldom more. Putting questions about the budget on-line and letting a panel of 5,000 people respond would give city hall a much bigger picture. They may not like the response they get – then what do they do?

Typically a city meeting might get as many as 10 delegations from the immediate area – city hall would like to wider response and going electronic gives them that opportunity.

This kind of technology is not however without its downside.  Who decides what the questions are going to be?  City Manger’s office? What if city council wants a question asked and the city manager doesn’t think it’s appropriate?  City managers serve at the pleasure of a city council; could get a little sticky down the road.

Burlington has a public affairs department that isn’t exactly stellar. It looks as if they will be kept to putting out press releases ad getting City Talk into your hands.

Angus Reid pointed out, as most people who have anything to say about the public thinks already know: Local is what matters most to people.  That might be true but that isn’t reflected in the way people vote at municipal elections.  The voter turnout is low – at times abysmally low.  In some situations Board of Education trustees are acclaimed.  If there is anything that should matter to parents it is how we educate their children.

Burlington is the first city in eastern Canada to climb aboard this service and will be signing a three-year contract that will come in at about $100,000 a year – more if the city takes up some of the analytical service offered.

Data in itself doesn’t provide answers – it is the analyzing of the data and what it really means that is important.  On that level what the city learns from the tea leaves is only as good as the people doing the tea leaf reading.

Part of what this process is about is pulling the public into the public square.  That public, according the Angus Reid falls into one of four segmentations.

16% of us fall into the “angry activist” segment

23% fall into a “young and ambivalent” segment.  This group tends not to like the old way of communicating.

35% of us are defined as retiring skeptics

26% are called happy campers and tend to be families that are busy and happy with the way things are going.

Just over 50 people took in the presentation given by a speaker who did not give short answers.  The city has made the decision to use the service and on the surface it looks like a good idea – it will certainly allow more people to have a say in what gets done.

Julien Marquis  enters his name on the list of people who would like to be part of the city’s panel.

What wasn’t clear was just how transparent the flow of information is going to be.  No one will ever know who responded – all the city will know is that that they live in Burlington and there will be just one response possible from each person.  The city will know what percentage of the panel responded and one has to assume they will know which ward and perhaps first three letters of their postal code.

Close to the end of the evening someone asked who would be accountable for what was being done.  There was a long pregnant pause, the Mayor didn’t say a word, Angus Reid didn’t say a word.  The question sort of hung in the air.

“Citizens”, explained the Mayor, “want the ability to choose how and when they engage and provide feedback to us, More than that, they want to know how their input is being used by the city as we make decisions.”  That is what the Mayor expects Insight Burlington to provide.

 The City of Burlington is the first Ontario community to join Surrey and Vancouver in British Columbia, where residents are using the technology to have their say through the service.    

We will let you know how this works out for Burlington.

Getting you name on the list: CLICK HERE

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3 comments to The city wants your insights – they are going to go electronic and online to get them and spend $100,000 to make this happen.

  • G. Piller

    I’m skeptical on this idea of Insight Burlington. I have signed up for mailing lists and information from City Hall, Council and the Mayor’s Office in the past with little success in follow through from them. I have been more impressed with “Lets Talk Burlington” Although I do not necessarily attend Inspire Burlington Events live, I do watch on Cogeco 23. Evenings are not accessible for everyone.

    I also feel that going completely tech is still leaving a large portion of the Burlington community unable to access services. Burlington has a significant seniors community and large low income population. Whether Council wishes to believe it or not, there are still many homes without computers, smart phones, high speed internet, and persons who believe tweeting is for the birds…

  • Laura durrant

    I think this would be a great idea if we were in dream land!! However, this is reality and this council will NEVER use the information! For the past year and a half I have had to deal with our mayor and his council ( beach resident) there are several members that actually take the time to listen to what people are saying, however, sadly… There are more members ( mayor included) that are in it for themselves and do not give a rats ass to what Burlington residents think. I think that once again, the mayor is wasting more of our hard earned money!!!

  • Joan Gallagher-Bell

    $100,000 expense for a selective person information gathering. When $25,000.00 was gained by discontinuing “taxi scrip” that had been used by the Challenged and Mature Adults within Burlington. This begs a question is this fair? How very sad for the residents of Burlington. We must remember when we vote all the inconsiderations during this Council’s term.